Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 26, 2020

The Birth of a Picture Book: Author, Illustrator and Editor/Art Director Discussion

An Author, Illustrator and Editor/Art Director Talk About Their Bi-Racial/Hybrid Picture Book (with helpful tips)
By Maggie Lauren Brown, Fia Kilbourn, and Mira Reisberg

I am incredibly excited that my debut picture book, Joy the Pandacorn, is available for pre-order with Clear Fork Publishing’s Spork imprint. As we prepare for the book’s release, I am witnessing the power of the collaborative process as I work alongside the illustrator, Fia Kilbourn, and the Editor and Art Director, Mira Reisberg. One of the perks of working with a smaller publisher is the open communication between all parties involved, and I am so lucky to get to watch the magic of Fia’s art unfold as she brings our book to life.

I got the idea for Joy the Pandacorn after a stranger stopped me and my son in the street, saying, “Oh my goodness, he’s so cute! What is he?” I wish this weren’t a question he would ever hear again, but because others view him as “racially ambiguous,” he likely will. I wanted to write a story to show kiddos that no matter how they look or act, they are perfect and can fit in just the way they are. To share this message in a fun and light-hearted way, I created the joyful characters of Joy the Pandacorn (panda-unicorn hybrid) and Urkel the Penguitten (penguin-kitten hybrid).

When I signed up for the Children’s Book Academy’s Craft and Business of Writing Children’s Picture Books course, I was lucky enough to snag a critique from Mira Reisberg. As she critiqued my story, she immediately got what I was trying to do, and couldn’t stop laughing as she read. So when she and Clear Fork’s publisher Callie Metler-Smith chose my pitch during the course’s Golden Ticket submission contest, and later made an offer of acquisition, I knew the story had found the perfect home.

A few months later, I took CBA’s Craft and Business of Illustrating Children’s Books course. It helped me to understand my story better as I learned to take advantage of page turns and how to rely on art whenever possible. At the end of the class, Mira asked me if there were any illustrators in the course who I might like to see illustrate Joy the Pandacorn. I suggested Fia, and Mira happened to have her eye on her as well, especially because she’d taken the course before and continued to evolve as an artist. I am so lucky that I got to have this input, even luckier that Mira agreed with my choice, and luckier still that Fia said yes to the project! Her playful, colorful illustrations bring the exact joy and magic that the story needs, and I can’t wait to see the finished product.

I’m excited to share that our book is available for preorder here:
I hope you love it as much as we do!

You can find Maggie Lauren Brown at and on Twitter: @ByMaggieBrown

  • If you are writing fiction that has a sweetness to it, always have an adorable or quirky character to lead your story who has a problem to overcome or a quest to go on. Joy the Pandacorn has all of these.
  • Humans are novelty loving creatures, so try and have characters that are not widely used like cats, bunnies or mice. See if you can come up with something original like the sloth books were when they first came out.
  • Have your obstacles escalate if possible, where it becomes harder or more and more difficult or frustrating for your main character to solve the problem or attain their goal.
  • Make sure the climax, where they solve the problem, or attain their goal, is original and if possible hard to predict.
  • Make your ending deeply satisfying with either an awww or a laugh or something that takes us back to the beginning.
  • Infuse as much humor as you can as humor is the number 1 thing that hooks kids in.
  • Pack emotion in. Children have not yet been socialized to stuff as many of their emotions yet, so they feel things strongly. Make those emotional connections!!!
  • Bring in as much fun or soul as you can while writing so that you feel it. It will come through.

I had just wrapped up a children’s book illustration course with Children’s Book Academy when I got the call from Mira Reisberg about a possible project with her. It was in the early days of the pandemic. My husband and I were still trying to figure out how to divide the day between work
and helping our two children with their school work. An SCBWI conference I was planning to go to had been canceled. I was feeling discouraged about getting any work for picture books this year, but I was also motivated to use it as an opportunity to grow my skills. And then I got the
call from Mira.

I have taken three classes with Mira and so I was familiar with how she gives feedback and guides students to do their best work. Of course, I was thrilled at the opportunity to work with her. When I read Maggie’s manuscript, I fell in love with Joy and the magical world she lives in. The themes of acceptance and belonging are so important today and they are also timeless. My inner 5 year old resonated with the nervousness and anxiety of that first day of school. Also, who doesn’t want to draw a Pandacorn!

This is my second picture book to illustrate and the process has been so different from my first book. My first book, My Trip to the Alphabet Zoo written by SueAnn Kiser was with Shutterfly and it was their launch into personalized picture books. The whole team was new to the industry
and so I had a lot of freedom. I really enjoyed the challenge of creating illustrations that would allow for the person buying the book to choose the hair color and skin tone of the character, but there was very little art direction for that book.

Working with an art director, and specifically Mira, this time has been wonderful because she really pushes me to do my best work. She has also art directed so many books that her little nuggets of experience and wisdom give me new insight into how to look at character creation and even to pay attention to the tiny little details that make a difference in the readability of my art. It has also been a pleasant surprise to have Maggie included in the process. Maggie and I took the same children’s book illustration class with Mira, which put me in a unique position as an illustrator. Maggie developed sketches in that class for the manuscript that I was able to see. Even though the art I have created for the book is different from what Maggie did for the class, seeing her sketches really helped me to get a fuller image of Joy’s character.

I know that communication between authors and illustrators is a controversial topic, but Maggie’s input has been helpful to me for understanding what she sees as important to Joy’s story. I appreciate that Maggie saves her input for important points, like when she mentioned that an early version of the cover seemed to suggest it was about a family story when the heart of the story is about the first day of school and fitting in. I hope the world loves Joy as much as I do. Capturing her sweet and sunny disposition has made these rough days better. You can pre-order Joy the Pandacorn today.
You can find Fia at and on Instagram @fiakilbourn

  • As I mentioned earlier, you want your character to be adorable, if that’s the feel of the story, and Fia did a great job with this. One of the ways she’s done this is by having bigger eyes that are further apart and lower down on the face the way they are in young children. We are born with the same sized eyes but our heads, bodies and faces are smaller and they grow as we get older. This is why children’s eyes look so big and adorable. Having a rounder or wider face can also make your character more adorable.
  • Having a distinctive palette can make your work stand out and be more original. Fia is using a very graphic black and white palette for her characters and more muted colors for her background except for rainbow splashes of color. In our illustration course we talk about color quite a bit, which is why I appreciate the many different approaches to color.
    I tend to use a very vibrant palette except for muting my backgrounds to push them back. However, in the graphics I make for CBA, they tend to be screaming bright.
  • One of the things that I love about Fia’s work on this book is her use of movement, whether its active with character’s moving and doing things or if it’s in the underlying composition, which creates a flow. Movement makes your book much more exciting. Ways to avoid it being static include using diagonals rather than lots of horizontals and verticals and having things happen through actions rather than talking heads.
  • Finally look at your negative space, the shapes and space around your characters and objects. The more negative space you have the more sophisticated your art will be. Personally, I like a lot of white space or breathing room around what’s going on in the image and around the text.

You can find Mira at
@ChildrensBookAc or Facebook:

Sketch showing movement through compositional flow

We hope that reading about Maggie and Fia’s experiences from their individual roles and points of view has been helpful or inspiring, along with my tips.
We’d love for you to come join us and learn to write and illustrate wonderful children’s books in this time-flexible, game-changing, highly mentored Craft and Business of Illustrating Children’s Books e-course. It’s co-taught by editors, art-directors, and agents with multiple exclusive submission opportunities and amazing assistants including Maggie. It starts this Monday August 31st, right here: This course has literally launched many, many careers! Will you be next?

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I can’t wait to meet Joy the Pandacorn! Adorable!


  2. Loved the whole backstory on this book’s journey to publication! Congratulations!!


  3. Wow, this post packs a punch! Such great info, amazing people, and I can’t wait to see the book, Joy the Pandacorn. Congrats on this book!


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